Moscow is the mighty capital of Russia and one of Europe's largest cities. Having read many articles on various blogs and posts about Moscow versus St. Petersburg, I had expected Moscow to have a more rigid, cold and Soviet-style ambience while St. Petersburg was meant to be more European, grandeur and sophisticated. And maybe that's true - St. Petersburg can be easily compared to the large and famous European cities - like Paris or London. Many of the travelers do prefer it to Moscow. For me, however, it was Moscow that appeared more exciting and interesting - maybe because I'm from Europe and the Russian capital was way different to what I was used to.
Arriving in Moscow - First impressions
Although it was early September and we arrived in Russia from nice and summery Vilnius in Lithuania (which by the way turned out to be very interesting, I'll write about it soon), the weather in Moscow was awful. Humid, rainy with bitterly cold wind. Although we'd spent a few days in St. Petersburg right before, and even though it's more to the north, it had been pretty sunny and nice - Moscow was completely different. The buildings and outskirts of the city appeared grey and lifeless. So we thought - first stereotypes about Moscow - bad weather and the ubiquitous grayness were actually true. We didn't know how wrong we were!
Accommodation in Moscow
Moscow is infamous for being one of the most expensive cities in the world. But there's a way to go around it. First do not eat around the Red Square (for sure not in the GUM mall). We booked accommodation far outside the city center, which was as cheap as anywhere else in Eastern Europe. Hostels and guest houses are becoming more and more popular in Russia. I would rarely advise that anyone book their room far from the center as Moscow has such efficient, cheap and amazing underground metro system that staying away is not a problem at all! It's actually an advantage - you can admire (yes, it's a right word) the subway stations - they are a piece of art! Just like in other Eastern cities, for example, in Kazakhstan (take a look at my post about the city of Almaty here - they have an art gallery full of paintings in one of the stations).
Red Square and Old Part of Moscow
The Red Square is full of cathedrals, churches, towers, palaces, museums and other magnificent buildings. If you're lucky with the weather and it's a beautiful sunny day outside - you'll feel like you're in a fantasy film with over-saturated colors. Basically, all of the most important sights and buildings are within the Red Square - it's easy to visit it in one day (unless you want to visit each and every museum).
Right at the beginning of the Red Square, you'll find St. Basil's Cathedral - the main and most popular Russian landmark. Some people say that it's a bit too colorful and seems kitsch. But we liked it a lot as it is different than all the boring, monumental buildings in Europe.
The other monuments around the square are also wonderful - the deep red building of the State Historical Museum, the Spasskaya Tower and Kazan Cathedral.
One of the world's poshest and most famous shopping malls is also located in the Red Square - GUM. The building is impressive but inside, it's full of pretentious people who are willing spend enormous amount of money on illogically overpriced items to boost their egos. If you're a poor backpacker like us and want to avoid contemptuous glances from "the better part of humanity" - don't spend there too long.
The Moscow Kremlin is a heart of the old city - the seat of tsars, rulers and Russian government. It's extremely easily accessible by metro and full of thousands of tourists (but interestingly, there were not too many English speakers). This ancient fortification complex is a completely different world and contrasts sharply with the rest of the brutalist-Stalinist architecture.
To enter Kremlin, you will have to wait ages in long lines to buy entry tickets. There are many choices of which museum and churches you wish to visit. You can even see Lenin's Mausoleum, but the entry there is very limited.
As I said before, Russia and the post-Soviet countries don't give too much damn about the Westernization of the world (with some minor exceptions like McDonald's) - they can function on their own and the use of the English language is pretty limited. Even when you want to buy tickets for the Kremlin!
The entry fee ranges from around 800-2000 RUB (10-30 EUR/11-32 USD). Inside, at the cathedral square, the churches (Dormition Cathedral, Cathedral of the Annunciaiton, Cathedral of the Archangel, Ivan the Great Bell Tower) and the Armory Chamber resemble a bit of St. Petersburg, they are grandeur and of more standard style.
Personally, I prefer the Red Square as a whole rather than Kremlin fortification complex. I like everything that's different and unique. Kremlin is very beautiful but if you're on a budget, visiting the Red Square is enough as you can see the entire view of Kremlin with its beautiful towers and cathedrals from the bridge over Moskva River right beside the Red Square.
The Soviet architecture
Of course, the Soviet style architecture is present in Moscow everywhere. But many of the buildings are actually... beautiful. They are different, they may be monumental and cold in style, they may have been created under one of the world's worst regimes, but nevertheless, it doesn't make them any less interesting. The most prominent examples are the group of skyscrapers called "Seven Sisters". Note, however, that name functions only in the West, the local people don't know this term!
If you don't have enough time, you don't need to visit all of them as they are situated really far away from one another and are pretty much similar. One of the most impressive is the Hotel Ukraina (now Radisson Royal Hotel) - the view of which together with the panorama of the city and its modern part, especially at night, is outstanding.
There's a misconception that Moscow is filled with Soviet architecture absolutely everywhere with the exception of the Red Square and Kremlin. This is wrong, there are many streets in Moscow that resemble St. Petersburg or any other European City (like Vienna, Budapest or Prague) - just like the pedestrian Arbat Street.
I'm not exactly sure why Russia and the East are associated with the grey concrete. I'm not saying that such architecture doesn't exist there - the most blocks are like this indeed, but to be honest, I've seen such grayness around Paris, London, other European cities, in the Middle East and all over South America. Yet it's only in the post-Soviet countries where this type of constructions are emphasized so much in the media - as if no other styles existed there.
Moscow is very diverse and if you like photography and want to see something different, visit the Moscow International Business Center with extremely modern, high skyscrapers. It's very easy to get there by metro - the best views are from the other side of the river, near Kutuzovskaya Metro Station.
You can walk all the way up the Kutuzovsky Avenue to the Hotel Ukraina which I've mentioned before - you'll more of the mix - modern and Soviet architecture.
Moscow at night - Is it safe?
If you are unlucky with the rain and fog - just like us (we had to spend one day indoors because of horrendous weather) - visit Moscow at night. It's a different world - all the gloomy dullness is gone, the buildings are beautifully illuminated, the Red Square has a cozy atmosphere of a fairy tale and the Soviet skyscrapers turn spectacular. The modern business center is also perfect for night pictures when the cloudy skies are illuminated with city lights casting a golden glow at the whole scene. Moscow on a rainy day and at night - it's like two completely different places!
Did we feel safe there roaming around at night carrying the camera and a tripod? Moscow has such a bad reputation and we'd heard it all before - how careful we must be. To be frank, I don't know if we were just lucky - but at no point of our nighttime stroll we felt unsure or afraid. And we walked quite a lot - all those spectacular night photos were taken around midnight.
The center didn't seem dodgy or dangerous at all - we saw no drunks, drug addicts or anything of this sort, unlike in some Western capitals that are considered to be safe, like Paris for example. So much for the stereotypes!
Of course, if you venture out to the unknown areas of the city, you might get into trouble, but just to walk around was perfectly fine for us.
How long to spend in Moscow
Moscow is a huge city, it's true - and most of the forums or travel blogs advise you should stay there for 4-5 days. I don't agree with that unless you want to enter every museum, see all the Seven Sisters and suburbs.
We stayed in Moscow for 2 and a half days and unfortunately, due to horrible weather, we had to take one day away from our itinerary. Nevertheless, we've seen the Kremlin, the modern Business Center, the old part and the Soviet architecture monuments. And, because we stayed at the outskirts, we spend some time walking around the area where only the locals live. So if you only have a weekend free and wondering if you should visit Moscow - do! It's definitely so different and immensely interesting.
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